Buttonhole stitch (or blanket stitch) can be used a number of ways in hand embroidery. It is frequently used in cutwork, in free style embroidery, in needlepainting, in needle lace, in crewel work, and the list could go on!
Distinction: The stitch I’m talking about here is, according to some, properly called a “blanket stitch.” You see it frequently on the edges of thick blankets, especially those made out of fleece today. The proper buttonhole stitch has an extra little loop in it, so that a tiny knot is formed at the edge. When executed neatly, this stitch (called a “tailor’s buttonhole”) forms a tight row of knots on the edge, great for pieces that would take a lot of wear around the buttonhole stitching.
But for all practical purposes, in regular embroidery, it’s the blanket stitch that’s used as the buttonhole stitch. Here’s how you execute the buttonhole stitch, and some ways that the buttonhole stitch is frequently used in embroidery.
First of all, the stitch itself:
Buttonhole Stitch: When you use the buttonhole stitch, you want the rope-like edge created by the stitch to line the outside of whatever design you are doing. So if your border is on the base of your design, your stitches will be worked in the direction shown in the diagram on the left here. You begin at the base of the design, at A. Your needle comes up from the back of the fabric, and goes down at B. When you bring your needle back up at C, make sure the working thread is underneath your needle, as shown. You can space your stitches out, depending on the effect you want. If you’re planning on cutting around the area stitched (as you would with cutwork or with a scalloped edge), you would keep your stitches right next to each other. In other techniques, you can spread your stitches out to create a different “look” (for example, as a decorative edging in crazy quilting – see below). To finish, you anchor the thread by taking your needle down over the loop you formed when you came up in front of the needle at C. Basically, you’re just going to go down right next to C, and anchor your working thread.
Buttonhole Stitch used as decorative edges
So that’s the basic stitch. It’s relatively easy to work. You can change the direction of the stitch (placing the twisted edge, for example, at the top of the area you are covering) very easily. You just want to make sure that your needle is always brought up in front of your working thread.
There are several different ways that buttonhole stitch can be used. In cutwork, it’s used to create a firm edge so that excess fabric can be cut away. For example, if you wanted to stitch a scalloped design on the edge of a collar of a little girl’s dress, you would stitch buttonhole scallops, like the ones below. Then you would cut the excess fabric carefully away, leaving just the scalloped edge.
There are a couple things you want to achieve when you make buttonhole scallops – the correct angle on your stitches (the green lines mark the stitch direction), and a solid scallop (otherwise, you risk frayed fabric). In the image above, note that the scallops are padded with a rather thick layer of outline or stem stitch. The padding could actually be any stitches – plain old straight stitch will do fine. The scallops don’t have to be heavily padded, but it’s a good idea to supply some padding.
Above is an example of how buttonhole stitch could be used to edge a design in cutwork. In this example, the inside material has already been cut and turned back. This is normal to do when working with shapes made of straight lines. For this particular example, what has happened before the buttonhole stitch was begun is this: the shape (a rectangle) was marked on the fabric. Then, within the shape, the fabric was cut from corner to corner, like an X. The cut fabric was then turned under, and tacked down by a running stitch. The buttonhole stitch is being worked over the running stitch. When it is complete, the excess fabric on the back (from the turn-under) will be carefully cut away.
When working with curves and stronger designs, you would outline your edges with a running stitch. You wouldn’t cut any fabric away at first. Then you’d carefully and snuggly buttonhole the edge of the design, over your running stitches (which not only guide the stitcher, but also provide support along the edge). Once your buttonhole stitching is complete, you would very carefully cut away the excess fabric. Do this from the front of the fabric, so that you can see the prominent twisted edge on the buttonhole stitching. If you do it from the back, you risk snipping that edge.
Buttonhole Wheels or Eyelets: Here, the buttonhole stitch is being worked around in a circular shape. This is effective in white work, when creating eyelets (shapes that have the center cut away), and it is equally effective in surface embroidery for stitching little flowers and such. You can space your stitches farther apart for flowers and such, but with eyelets in cutwork, you want to keep them close. Below is another example of how buttonhole wheels can be used. The example below was taken from one of my student’s samplers.
Buttonhole Shading: You can also use the buttonhole stitch as a filling stitch. By changing the shade of your thread as you progress, you can achieve a nice “needle-painted” effect. However, the buttonhole stitch, because of that twisted, rope-like edge, will be slightly thicker than your typical long & short stitch. It also requires being worked in straight rows, whereas, in long & short stitch, there’s more flexibility. Notice in the diagram on the left that the stitch is being worked over a laid thread. This helps keep the “padding” more consistent, and also helps keep your rows nice and straight. When using the buttonhole stitch to fill an area like this, the effect is rather more stylized and formal. The finer the thread you use, the finer the the results.
Detached Buttonhole Filling: Common in needle lace, this filling technique requires working a base running stitches along the edge of your design. Before working the buttonhole filling, you run a laid thread through the running stitches from side to side. Then you work your buttonholes over this thread, without passing through the fabric. For the next row of stitches, you use the previous row as your base, and stitch through it. By laying a long thread from side to side just below each row of buttonholes, you allow yourself to go back to the left side of the area and work from left to right. It’s not required, though, that you do this – you can work each row of buttonholes back and forth, without laying anything but the initial thread. Your filled area will be anchored to the running stitches along the side (pass through them with your last buttonhole in a row), and, when you’re finished filling in the design, you can c
ut away the fabric behind if you wish. If you do this, it is recommended that you stitch the edge of the design either with overcast stitching, or with an buttonhole edge as shown above in the cutwork explanation.
And there you have some of the typical uses of the versatile buttonhole stitch. If you have any additional uses that you would like to see an explanation of, let me know!